The Fragility of Democracy: an essay on our times

Photo by Gabe Austin

Part I: The lessons of authoritarianism

Much have I travelled in the realms of authoritarianism. I’m the daughter of a man who was conscripted into the Austrian army at seventeen to fight for Hitler. Mercifully, my father was taken prisoner after a year and spent the rest of the war effectively under the protection of the Allies although even in an American prisoner of war camp, he and his friends were attacked by other prisoners for their anti-Nazi sentiments. Returning to the States after the war, he met a woman escaping the gloom of post-war Britain and the pair married and started a new life in England. In the house I grew up there were disagreements about many things but about the evils of Nazism, never.

I was a year into a PhD on philosophical responses to the holocaust when I noticed — doh! — the connection between my history and choice of research subject. I read books on the history of Nazism and — much more harrowing — personal testimonies from those who had been in concentration camps. It’s dark, almost incomprehensible reading that I never want to repeat. But my personal witnesses to the rise of Nazism in 1930s’ Vienna in the form of my father and his sister would never talk about their experiences.

Years later, visiting Syria as part of research for a book, I had a brief taste of what life might be under an authoritarian regime. Night after night I sat with students on a Damascus balcony and listened to their tales of loneliness: in a society where even small groups were forbidden from meeting, it was difficult to meet people. I went to one of the early protests against the Assad regime, a demonstration in support of political prisoners. Local attitudes in the streets and on the buses towards a foreigner were very different from the friendly curiosity of people in neighbouring Lebanon and Palestine. There was a wariness rooted in a paranoia about the state enemy (Israel) and anyone, particularly a woman asking questions, was a potential spy. Attempts to get interviews foundered and at one point I was taken for a honeypot. The fact that Syria’s secret police and the network of government informers who operated in every neighbourhood could be watching created a pervasive mistrust.

Much about Damascus from the images of Assad, senior and junior, that filled shop windows and taxis and the ambient sadness that sometimes made me cry for no reason, reminded me of Eastern Europe. In 1988, in what turned out to be the last year of the Eastern Bloc, a friend and I went on a kind of communist inter rail trip. We entered by Checkpoint Charlie but left East Germany almost as soon as we arrived, spooked by its unfriendliness, got scammed in Poland by a local desperate for dollars, had to bribe Czech police to return our passports and parted in Hungary from where I travelled east through Bulgaria. But the toughest regime of them all, the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania, remained out of bounds. Under the isolationist rule of Enver Hoxha, the country was accessible only to westerners prepared to join a state-organised tour.

When I finally visited Albania in 2019, it was a bitter-sweet lesson in the legacy of authoritarianism. The country had emerged from its half-century of authoritarianism three decades before and with a burgeoning tourist industry, it actively welcomed foreigners. I laughed with the locals about the pomposity of Dictator Hoxha and his ever-changing rules and marvelled at the absurdity of the aspiration of this tiny nation to become self-sufficient. I interviewed a political prisoner about the twenty-five years he’d lost to the regime and explored the network of underground tunnels built to harbour the political elite in the event of attack from hostile forces.

It was joyous to see the failure of this monumental attempt to impose a single vision on a population, to find the paraphernalia of the regime put into museums and turned historical evidence of the failure of the desire to control others in the face of the irrepressibility of life in all its messiness. But it was sobering to see the enduring effects of those years: as the weeks went on, it became clear that Albanians, while outwardly friendly, maintained a secretiveness born of the need to protect themselves from those around them, while their society was riven by corruption generated by the struggle for survival.

Albania poet and former political prisoner Uran Kostreci

What did I learn about authoritarianism from these experiences? Regardless of whether it comes from the Left or the Right, from nationalist fascism or from totalitarian communism, authoritarian societies share a set of common features. Firstly, there’s an overwhelming belief in a single truth or set of linked truths based on an aspiration for ideal social and political outcomes. As Alex Gooch, citing R J Talmon, the author of Origins of Totalitarian Democracy points out, ‘at the heart of this totalitarian approach to politics lies “the assumption of a sole and exclusive truth in politics”. It “postulates a preordained, harmonious and perfect scheme of things … Political thinking in this vein looks forward to a future time when “this philosophy reigns supreme over all fields of life”. The priority and exclusivity of the prevailing philosophy gives its adherents a sense of self-righteousness and a feeling of belonging which, in turn, makes an out group of those who don’t think likewise. The scapegoats or dissenters come to be seen by the majority as not just wrong in their thinking but morally flawed.

So much for the group-think. Orchestrating much of the ideas and behaviours is a government aiming to attain and maintain total power, or as near to it as possible. In its early stages, a new authoritarian order establishes itself by introducing greater levels of control over the daily lives of the people, enforcing them more and more strictly. As Colin Horgan points out, citing Hannah Arendt’s grand study of totalitarianism: ‘the steady movement toward tyranny — is measured as drips, not as a flood.’

Human adaptability enables a process of habituation which makes demands and restrictions that would have seemed unacceptable if introduced suddenly seem relatively harmless or necessary. Building cumulatively over time, state-imposed measures establish a new set of norms in accordance with which people, either having internalised or fearing the consequences of breaking them, become largely self-disciplining. Crucially, such a development involves the consent of the people, either explicit in their buying into the governing ‘truth’, or tacit, in what historians of the Holocaust have called bystander behaviour.

Social isolation, both internal and external, is a feature of the authoritarian society. In Syria, the lack of freedom of association meant that there was almost no civil society: no community groups or clubs bringing people together through shared projects or interests. It could be dangerous to speak openly. Albania’s isolation from the rest of the world generated, ironically, a love of the west and a longing to be part of Europe that was a driving force even thirty years after the end of the regime. Totalitarian movements, Arendt said, are ‘mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals.’ The loneliness of modern society, she pointed out, creates the perfect conditions for totalitarian domination because ‘once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, [it] has become an everyday experience.’

Above all, I learnt that the human impulse to live, not just as a drive for biological survival but the need to experience life in its variety and out-of-controllness, remains the redeeming element in the story of authoritarianism. This is the bright secret that the authoritarian mentality fails to grasp: however strong the forces of control, people always find ways to live and express themselves. To see this, you don’t need the exceptional exceptional examples, the leading dissenters or the ones who managed, like Yeonmi Park escaping North Korea, through super-human efforts to get out. It can be found in everyday life by ordinary people, in small deeds and acts of kindness and in the myriad ways people find of communicating their dissent and other ways of seeing. With their cumulative force, these things evolve into the means of change: no authoritarian order so far has lasted more than a couple of generations.

As a tourist-student of authoritarianism, I viewed these societies through a historical lens which, while acknowledging their role in shaping the world and my own life, placed them firmly in the past. Like many of their commentators, I considered authoritarian societies — apart from a few yet-to-fall states — a twentieth century aberration, an unfortunate backlash to liberal democracy as the forces of moderation and reasonableness spread ever outwards. Authoritarianism couldn’t happen here in the west, not in Europe (at least not in my part of it) and certainly not in England, the cradle of western democracy.

Trafalgar Square, London, May 2020

So I am more than surprised to find myself, in the autumn of 2020, living in a Britain where daily life is controlled and curtailed by the government to a degree that has never happened before. With limits on numbers meeting and restrictions on travel, I cannot see many of the people close to me and the ban on more than six gathering anywhere rules out much of family life and civil society. My livelihood has been damaged and that of others shut down, possibly permanently. Most of the activities central to my life this time last year — singing, community meetings, theatre — are either illegal or so restricted as to be unviable. If I am deemed to have been in contact with an infectious person or been in an ‘infected place’, I can be fined up to £10 000 for popping out for milk or medicine or to take a walk round the block and if I have been wrongly identified, there is no recourse for rectifying mistakes. If I am suspected of being infectious, I can be taken or kept in a place by force by either the police or public health officials.

Charing Cross Station, London, September 2020

To be sure, the enforcement of these measures in twenty-first century Britain is so patchy as to make defying them optional for those with a casual attitude to the law. But, with government and opposition ministers encouraging people to report their neighbours for infringements, that could change with time. There are threats of further measures and the usual mechanisms for Parliament to examine them have been suspended. At the time of writing, there is no end in sight.

How did I get here? On all my travels, whether of body or mind, I have always came back to a safe place where reasonableness and stability reigned. It wasn’t perfect — grey skies often hung over this pleasant green land and the country has had its fair share of social injustice and recession. But over the course of my life, Britain has largely been a comfortable, liveable place to be. And yet, for the first time, I’m experiencing authoritarianism neither as a researcher or a visitor, not on the page or through the experience of others but first-hand, on home turf. How did it get here?

The next section of this essay will address that question.

Writer, reader & genre-weaver: current affairs, travel, place. Writing a book about Europe by way of its cities. See:

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